The Tragic Age
by Stephen Metcalfe
St. Martin’s Griffin
ARC, 310 pages
Source: I received this book from the publisher via Shelf Awareness in exchange for review consideration. This in no way affects my review; all opinions are my own. Thank you, St. Martin’s Griffin!
This is the story of Billy Kinsey, heir to a lottery fortune, part genius, part philosopher and social critic, full time insomniac and closeted rock drummer. Billy has decided that the best way to deal with an absurd world is to stay away from it. Do not volunteer. Do not join in. Billy will be the first to tell you it doesn’t always work— not when your twin sister, Dorie, has died, not when your unhappy parents are at war with one another, not when frazzled soccer moms in two ton SUVs are more dangerous than atom bombs, and not when your guidance counselor keeps asking why you haven’t applied to college.
Billy’s life changes when two people enter his life. Twom Twomey is a charismatic renegade who believes that truly living means going a little outlaw. Twom and Billy become one another’s mutual benefactor and friend. At the same time, Billy is reintroduced to Gretchen Quinn, an old and adored friend of Dorie’s. It is Gretchen who suggests to Billy that the world can be transformed by creative acts of the soul.
With Twom, Billy visits the dark side. And with Gretchen, Billy experiences possibilities.Billy knows that one path is leading him toward disaster and the other toward happiness. The problem is—Billy doesn’t trust happiness. It’s the age he’s at. The tragic age.
Stephen Metcalfe’s brilliant, debut coming-of-age novel, The Tragic Age, will teach you to learn to love, trust and truly be alive in an absurd world.
Billy Kinsey knows all about everything. Every page there is a fact he shares about something that relates to his life and current situation. I thought it was a unique approach, but sometimes I felt like I was reading news headlines and those “did you know?” boxes in little kid educational materials. Basically, I read books for stories, not for facts I can find all over the internet. Sometimes these random facts worked, but most of the time they were jarring and lifted me out of the story. You could say Billy’s a know-it-all, but that term, at least for me, is only applied to people who actually tell others all the things they know. Billy kept these tidbits and info bites to himself, which made him seem nerdy and quirky, if a bit passive and depressed overall.
I preferred the first half of the book over the second half. The first half dealt more with getting to know all the (immensely) flawed characters. The second half just got really dramatic, and the characters who started off so interesting and layered turned two-dimensional and cliche. I didn’t expect the book to go where it did, and I wasn’t a fan of the intense and tragic climax. I thought this was going to be a story about a boy who finds new friends, all of them vastly different, who help him out of his rut of a comfort zone and show him the world through different perspectives. It became a book about making stupid choices/decisions, peer pressure, and hiding/running from and dealing/ignoring problems.
The characters who started off so promising were Twom, Deliza, and Gretchen. Twom is a juvenile delinquent, the bad boy, the one with a dark side. Deliza is a sexy, popular girl who knows she’s sexy but is also damn smart. Gretchen is sweet, caring, and a “daddy’s girl” and “all-American girl next-door” anybody would be lucky to have as a friend. The three of them instantly intrigued me, but I was disappointed with their arcs. No one grew; if anything, their lives and demeanors just got worse and worse. Twom, who started out seeming like a major player in this whole story, sort of took a backseat, and Deliza just became his hot girlfriend and nothing more. Ephraim, Billy and Twom’s loser/geek tag-along friend, had a character arc that just exploded without warning, without any clues (at least, none that I caught). And Gretchen, sweet, wonderful Gretchen, never dared, never stood up for what she thought was real (I’m trying to not get spoiler-y). I, and Billy, wanted her to grow some balls and become more independent, more defiant. I guess you could say, though, that all the characters were real. Everyone was screwed-up somehow, and their lives — their growth — didn’t go the typical YA novel route. This is either brilliant or terrible; I’m not sure which. But I like and want to read about people who change and learn, and these kids… Well, I didn’t like any of them by the book’s end, and I didn’t really have much sympathy for them, either.
One thing I did really like about the book was how Billy came up with various scenarios for predicaments he was caught in. He thought of multiple ways the scene might play out — but we, the reader, don’t find out he was just imagining the particular outcome until he actually tells us “that’s not how it happened”. I liked these instances of unpredictability; it made him an unreliable narrator without actually being an unreliable narrator. (Or, perhaps, was he really?) They got easy to pick out after a while, when the scenarios would get more and more ridiculous, and towards the end of the book I was beginning to think it had seen its limit, its welcome, a while ago. Still, it was fun to be jerked around like this for some time. It made things interesting, shook things up, and showed how gullible we as readers can be, when we take a character’s word for it.
In the end, The Tragic Age was an interesting novel that started out really good and enticing and with a lot of promise. However, it fell flat after a while, went in a direction I didn’t see coming, and had all hell break loose so fast it almost seemed out of the blue. I (think I) liked how absolutely messed-up the characters were, but really disliked how no one changed. (This is not a coming of age novel. It’s, like, a “deciding to completely throw away everything you’ve thus far learned right before coming of age” novel.) I didn’t hate The Tragic Age, there were things I did like about, but I was a bit perplexed by it and ultimately let down. It wasn’t the greatest YA contemporary I’ve read, but it’s definitely left me thinking about it a lot. So the fact that I’m still scratching my head and reading others’ reviews and flipping through the pages says something. My feelings are very muddled. ♦
So tell me…
Have you read The Tragic Age? If not, would you be interested to after reading this review? What was the last “coming of age” contemporary you read? Comment below letting me know! And, as always, happy reading!